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The Champlain Bridge crosses the St. Lawrence River in Montreal. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

Quebec's Champlain Bridge — the busiest in the country — is deteriorating at a steady pace, has critical structural problems in specific areas and needs immediate repairs, according to reports unearthed by Radio-Canada.

The Canadian agency in charge of the six-kilometre bridge insists it is safe for passage, despite three engineering studies that suggest the structure is suffering from advanced corrosion in key areas, and should be replaced sooner than later.

Some support beams on the bridge's water side are in "very critical" condition, according to a 2007 Oxand study brought to light by CBC's French-language service.

The Quebec engineering firm reported finding a one-metre hole in one of the corroded support beams.

CHAMPLAIN BRIDGE FACTS

  • Built 1957-1962.
  • Six km long, six lanes wide.
  • 57 million vehicles cross the bridge every year.
  • Trucks make up 8% of annual traffic (about 4.5 million).
  • 400 buses cross the bridge every day, carrying 18,000 passengers.

But evaluating the bridge's overall integrity and measuring risks is difficult because of the overall levels of corrosion, Oxand concluded.

The study corroborates findings of two other independent studies by Quebec engineering firms of the bridge, which crosses the St. Lawrence River in Montreal.

In 2007 Dessau found the Champlain Bridge was in overall acceptable shape but some elements including the support beams were in critical to mediocre state.

And in 2006, Genivar recommended a new bridge be built to replace Champlain as soon as possible, with construction ideally starting in 2007.

Bridge is fine, officials say

The bridge is sound, despite what the reports conclude, said the Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Inc., a federal agency that oversees the structure.

"If the bridge is open, it is because it is safe," said general manager Glen Carlin.

Studies are commissioned to help managers with risk management, and "our job is to manage the different risks that are out there, and this is what we do," Carlin said Tuesday.

The bridge undergoes inspection every year, and officials act on recommendations made by engineers.

"If the bridge is open, it is because it is safe. If there was any question about the safety of the bridge, we would take the action that is required."

Plans are underway to start repairs on the bridge, and the agency is "looking at a plan to accelerate the rate of repairs," Carlin said.

The agency has recently asked the government for $200 million to begin repairs, and the bidding process is supposed to start this fall, he added.

Harper's reassurance rings hollow for local mayor 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered assurances about the safety of the Champlain Bridge during a campaign stop in Kitchener, Ont., Tuesday.

He told reporters the aging bridge is safe. 

Regular inspections have been carried out and the government knows it's necessary to have a long-term plan for the bridge, Harper said.

The Conservative is not qualified to make statements about the structural safety of the Champlain Bridge, suggested Mayor Jean-Marc Pelletier, of Brossard, a small city on Montreal's South Shore.

Pelletier, an electronics and computer engineer, questioned Harper's authority to make any declarations about the bridge's safety.

"If, with the knowledge that I have, I am not in a position to reassure the population, I don't see how the prime minister can comment, unless he has solid reports that are conclusive," he said Tuesday.

"And if that's the case, he should make them public."

Residents on Montreal's South Shore are worried about the bridge, and any study on its state should be made widely available, Pelletier said.

Federal Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon confirmed a few weeks ago that Ottawa was looking at replacing the St. Lawrence River span.

The Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Inc. has said it would be cheaper to build a new structure than to repair the existing one.

The bridge cost $35 million to build. It first opened to traffic on June 28, 1962, and was named in honour of Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec City in 1608.